Saturday, February 28, 2015

Roxette Live!: 5 Pleasant Surprises at the Sydney Opera House

First, the bad news: One of those pleasant surprises wasn't the enduring power and glory of Marie Fredriksson's voice. Frankly, it's seen better decades. The brain tumor she suffered in 2002 has left the 56-year-old performer physically, vocally, permanently, altered.

My friend Dov, who scored our complimentary Roxette concert tickets, said she looks like Robyn's mom, and she's so Robyn's mom. That's actually a compliment to them both, and probably has more to do with the 21-year age gap between them and their shared hair color and Swedish heritage than Marie's medical history. The ripped jeans and trademark short, platinum coif are hardly mom-like, but in counterpointing the effects of time's passage, they also magnified them.

Marie, looking like she was itching to rock, spent the entire hour-plus show seated, and she sometimes struggled (and sadly, failed) to hit those stratospheric highs that she once effortlessly scaled. Usually, though, and to her credit, she didn't even try. Clearly she's mindful of her current limitations and has made her peace with it. It's not that she can no longer sing -- the vocal-and-piano-only segment was a concert highlight -- but her anthems for beautiful losers (always my favorite side of Roxette) would have to be completely stripped down in order to play to her current strengths and weaknesses.

Like, say, Marianne Faithfull, Marie's now a character singer, not the fierce wailing diva of decades past. That doesn't quite jibe with classic Roxette, which was always about pop bombast and show(wo)manship. No one would have blamed Marie had she chosen to retreat permanently offstage after the tumor, so her mere presence onstage beside her still-fit-at-56 musical partner Per Gessle is a testament to her undiminished resilience, and the crowd loved her for it.

Even seated, she remains the star of Roxette. Before the show, I was talking to someone who wasn't aware of her medical situation, and he said he couldn't wait to see her because she doesn't age. I'm glad I filled him in before he had to see her being helped onstage to the spot where she would remain perched for the entire show. I wonder how many casuals fans who hadn't kept up with Roxette since the '90s weren't expecting that.

Aging is tricky for any performer, but it can be even harder for a pop or rock star than it is for an actor/actress because those music genres, for the most part, revolve around youth. You can make it work in your 50s if, like, say, Madonna, the point is "Look how much I haven't aged," or if, like, say, Sade, your emphasis has always been on elegance, but Roxette can't make time seem irrelevant (a life-threatening illness can do that to a once age-defying star), and I can think of few '90s anthems as shamelessly and jubilantly youthful as "Joyride."

Shockingly, when the band arrived at "Joyride" near the end of the main set, it felt like 1991 all over again. I was enjoying myself too much to think, "I'm way too old for this…and so are they," which brings me to my first and perhaps biggest surprise of the night.

1. Roxette's back catalogue really holds up. Crash Boom Bang was one of my favorite pop albums of the '90s, a fact I'd nearly forgotten until the band offered the title track early in the show. In the '90s I would have paid to see them perform it front to back in concert. I probably still would.

2. Despite Marie's vocal limitations, Roxette still sounds as sharp as they once demanded we look. My last Australian concert was Soundgarden two years ago in Melbourne, and I spent much of it marveling at how well Chris Cornell had aged physically and vocally. While watching Roxette live, I marveled at how great the band still sounded. Well, I don't know how many of the the players were around for Roxette's '80s/'90s heyday, but they made me wish I'd bothered to check out Roxette live back then. It must have been one blazing show.

3. Roxette fans span multiple demographics. I was expecting to see a crowd of aging Gen Xers, but instead I got a perfect mix of gay and straight, male and female, twentysomething, thirtysomething, fortysomething and above, and at least one baby.

4. Roxette fans are ride or die. I hear there was a lot of crying up front over Marie, but from where I was sitting, the audience didn't even seem to notice that she'd changed at all...or that it wasn't 1990. They were too busy singing every lyric, something that wasn't lost on Per and Marie, who let the crowd do the heavy lifting on vocals for large chunks of fan favorites "It Must Have Been Love" and "Every Time You Leave (Fading Like a Flower)."

5. I'd be up for another spin on Roxette's joyride. Maybe it was the setting -- every pop concert in Sydney should be on the steps of the Opera House forecourt -- but if Roxette was coming back next week, I'd do it all over again.

My 3 Favorite Roxette Songs on the Sydney Set List

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